Learn how to make positive first impressions and you’ve learnt how to navigate almost every social occasion you can think of
Article by Paul Russell
She’s wearing red, voluminous skirt with patent peep toe shoes peeking out as she sashays towards you. Her stride is confident, assured. She looks you right in the eye, an assessing gaze with no hint of a smile. As you shake hands, her palm feels cold in yours. She speaks, her accent is smooth, well-spoken. Two seconds is all it takes for you to develop a first impression of someone. A mere two seconds in which you assess someone with every power of perception that you possess. It is instinctive, can this person be trusted, are they a threat to me, should I invest time in them? All of our prejudices rise to the surface, our past experiences, stereotypes and we make a snap judgement. In fact, research suggests that the judgement we make in these first moments changes very little even if we have five seconds or 10 – or even months. First impressions are largely subconscious, but if you understand the rules then you have the power to always ensure the impression you create is positive.
One of the first things that we notice about people is how they present themselves. This is our first clue of what the person we are meeting is like. So in the absence of having 30 minutes to grill another on their political allegiances, kindness to animals and general criminal history, we look at what they are wearing to give us an insight. It’s ridiculous really, but it’s what we do. And if someone is dressed well, they are smart, well-turned out and seamlessly fit into the social occasion then we think, yes, they are safe. Of course, this impression might change over time but in those first moments we take them in from head to toe and decide whether they are worthy of our attention. We often become blasé about clothing, giving it little thought or thinking that people should like us for who we are. Well yes, of course they should, but dressing well and appropriately just makes the opportunity that you will get to that point greater. Utilise first impressions to your advantage by using your clothes to provide the type of clues that you want to give out; people notice far more than you realise.
How you present yourself comes down to more than merely clothing, it is how you inhabit that clothing. You can wear a £1,000 suit but still look drab and unsophisticated, out of place and gauche. It comes down to that rather old fashioned word, deportment, or how you move. If you’ve ever witnessed someone sidle uncomfortably into a room, shoulders hunched up around their ears, slinking around rather as if they think they are about to be expelled at any moment, you’ll know just how important stance and movement is. Similarly, if you’ve ever watched someone who is truly comfortable in their skin enter a room, you’ll appreciate how to do it. They have a relaxed posture, and upright back, their chin isn’t trying to jostle for position with their belly button but is right where it should be- straight in front of them. Their arms aren’t defensively crossed, or shoved deep into their pockets but relaxed and ready to receive the many handshakes and hugs that are bound to come their way. Even if naturally you are quite a shy or retiring person, you can still give the appearance of confidence by how you move.
And then, the moment of truth. The initial connection where you are face to face with someone new. This is when they can either think friendly approachable, yes or arrogant, pompous, no-no-no! Of course, it is very difficult to get over stereotypes that people hold in those few seconds but you can tip the balance in your favour by doing everything right. Make eye contact, smile and demonstrate you are not a threat. It sounds simplistic, but so much can be communicated through these small actions and in fact many people find it very difficult to do properly. Eye contact is quite an intimate thing, it is how we demonstrate interest, respect and liking. Think about that person that you truly dislike and will go all out to avoid. Probably the number one thing you do is avoid eye contact, because once eye contact is established, you have an interaction. And once you have an interaction, you have a bond that can be developed. So use eye contact is those first moments and smile, show you are happy to meet them.
Now of course, there are many, many associated and preconceived ideas that we hold, subconsciously or otherwise, about accents. Short of elocution training, there is little that you can do about your accent but what you can control is what you say. There are three outcomes when you meet someone new, you can make a positive first impression, a negative one or make no discernible impression whatsoever and the latter is often determined by the quality of what you have to say. Be informed, be interesting, be interested and have genuine conversations. A good tip to follow is the anchor, reveal, encourage system where you find a point of common interest suitable to the occasion like how you both know the couple who are getting married. Then you reveal something about yourself, and I don’t mean your tendency to kleptomania or your indiscretion with the bride that summer, but that you adore summer weddings or that you are fascinated with old buildings like the one you are in. This can lead others to add their own reveal and from here you can encourage away. In mere seconds you have not only made a positive first impression but are well on the way to making a new friend. Learn how to make positive first impressions, and you’ve learnt how to navigate almost every social occasion you can think of.
Paul Russell is a luxury expert and etiquette coach who works with private clients and high net worth individuals in the art of correct behaviour. He is co-founder and managing director of Luxury Academy. A dynamic trainer and speaker, Paul regularly delivers keynotes globally on a variety of luxury and behavioural topics.